Most climate scientists now agree that human beings are altering the earth's climate. It's happening in this way: the world functions like a greenhouse. Light from the sun enters the earth's atmosphere, reaches the earth and is reflected back into the atmosphere as heat. Small concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, by trapping some of this heat, keep the earth warm enough for life to thrive. The rest of the heat escapes into space.

Since the industrial revolution, human activity has added carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, increasing their concentration. More of the sun's heat is therefore trapped, and the earth has become warmer, and the climate has started to change.

The United States, which has 4 percent of the population, produces 21 percent of the greenhouse gases. The main source of U.S. emissions is the burning of fossil fuels by industry, by electrical generation, and by cars and trucks.

The 2,500 scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have concluded that during the next century the average temperature of the planet is apt to increase between 2 and 6 degrees Fahrenheit. Global warming is already evident. The 10 warmest years in this century have occurred since 1983: 1998 was the warmest since records have been kept. Studies also show that during this century there has been an increase in worldwide precipitation, a decrease in polar ice caps, and a rise in sea level.

But why is this the particular concern of religious leaders?

Climate change will hurt creation. People of faith know, as Psalm 24 tells us, "the Earth is the Lord's and all that is in it." Human beings are called to care for the earth. We do not own it, but are to treasure and nurture it as a sacred trust.

All living things will be affected. Higher temperatures cause more evaporation and soils will tend to dry out faster. At the same time, increased amounts of water in the atmosphere will mean more rain or snow overall which can cause flooding and soil erosion. Sea levels have already risen about 6 inches over the last 100 years. As temperatures rise, glaciers and permafrost will melt, further raising sea level, flooding islands and low-lying coastal zones. We are not taking good care of God's creation.

Second, people of faith have long believed that we are "our brothers' and sisters' keepers." We are responsible for each others' well being. Global warming will affect the health and safety of everyone. The changes in the weather will threaten our supplies of food and water. Those living on islands and low-lying coasts will probably lose their homes.

With climate change, heat waves will happen more often. In July, 1995, 465 people died in Chicago from a heat wave with temperature exceeding 90 degrees Fahrenheit day and night. Diseases that thrive in warmer climates -- malaria, encephalitis, cholera, dengue and yellow fevers -- are apt to spread with expanding range of mosquitoes and other disease-carrying organisms. This could result in 50 million to 80 million additional malaria cases per year worldwide by 2100.

Third, people of faith are called to justice and fairness. The rich of the world -- the industrialized nations -- are primarily responsible for the increase of greenhouse gases. Seventy-three percent of the gases due to human activity come from these nations. It will be the poor in the developing world, and in the U.S. and other industrialized nations, who will be the first affected by heat waves, storms, floods, and disease.

It is only right that those who cause a problem be the ones who rectify it. It is not fair that restrictions be placed on the poor to make up for damage, past and present, caused by the conduct of the rich.

Fourth, God provides opportunities for gracefulness. Perhaps the Kyoto Protocol is one of those. Though failing to deal with the magnitude of the reality, it is an important first step. It calls upon the industrialized nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 5.2 percent below 1990 levels by 2010. The U.S. target is 7 percent, Japan 6 percent and the European Community 8 percent.

Faithfulness has always involved demands and opportunities to do the right thing. The reality of global warming now provides both. Will we be faithful?

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